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Unclay by T. F. Powys

Unclay (1931)

by T. F. Powys

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For a book written in the 1930s ‘Unclay’ has a much older air about it. The style in some ways is more what you’d expect from, say, Fielding writing in the first half of the 1700s while the rural setting shuts out the contemporary age and reintroduces the feudal one, Lord Bullman seen by one and all as the overlord even if it’s the wealthy Farmer Mere who exercises his corrupt power.

Then there’s the elemental quality, the battle between good and evil with death becoming one of the characters, now given a Christian name by one of the villager, hence John Death, even given a scythe as he was in the fifteenth century. It might seem that this casts a foreboding shadow over the book, especially as he has been given instructions on a small parchment to take (unclay) a central character but when we read that he has lost this parchment and, after a futile search, decides to rent a cottage in the village and have a holiday there, we can see the humour that is constantly introduced by Powys too.

We also deviate from the norm, as you’d expect in any Powys writing, in Powys’s references to God. No longer simply benign and immortal, Powys tells the reader ‘sometimes at dawn the awful will of the Almighty rises to do good, and sets – when the evening comes – to do evil’, as Farmer Mere approaches Susie Dawe’s house in order not just to rape her but also to savage her, first by his dog and then by his own teeth. And earlier, in a typical authorial comment, Powys constructs his text to question God’s infinity. It begins with Powys talking about the transience of power and how one power will always be overtaken by another, ‘but who is that dare name the last power to kill? What will He do when the fatal blow is struck . . . Will He – in order to complete the conquest – slay Himself? . . . Will God die?”

Initially you might think you’re in for a more familiar story of good and evil, with to very good men, one Mr Hayhoe who is given the living of Dodder when he opens a gate that Lord Bullman was struggling with and the other Joseph Bridle, a simple man who has fallen in love with the virginal Susie. Our expectations, though, are troubled when, firstly, Mr Hayhoe fails to recognise death even after he’s correctly identified himself and, secondly, when we find that Susie considers Joseph too dull and serious to interest her. In other words, it seems as if Powys is suggesting something undeveloped or lacking in these good men and so, although on one level this seems like a simple tale, it emerges as something quite complex. Powys’ god is neither the Christian Old Testament nor New Testament God but a more human one, susceptible to making mistakes and arbitrary in decision making. I’m sure Powys’ contemporaries would have largely been put off his work but to me the combination of such contrasting elements in his writing make it interesting in its originality. ( )
  evening | Jan 22, 2014 |
‘And what did you say?’ enquired Death.
‘That Mr. Solly do trust I to clean his silver teapot,’ answered Winnie, ‘and then I said that I didn’t carry no angel’s message for nothing, and Gabriel offered me eternal life as a wage.’
‘And what did you say to that?’ asked Death.
‘That I would sooner have a packet of Mrs. Mogg’s sweets,’ replied Winnie …..

Death has come to Dodder, England to “unclay” two of its residents. Who these two residents are Death can’t remember; Death has a terrible memory, and he has lost the signed and written orders his Master has given him. No matter, though. John Death simply decides to take some time off, as it were, in Dodder, where he can take a little rest and look for his lost Treasure. Here he can rub elbows with the mortals, maybe have a little fun with the locals – especially the girls.

The local villagers in Dodder eye Mr. John Death with no more or no less suspicion than they would any other newcomer. They seem to accept him as one of their own surprisingly rather quickly. Rev. Hayhoe is the first to befriend John Death; he feels Mr. Death is a kindred spirit. His friend, Mr. Death, makes Mr. Hayhoe feel less lonely for the first time in a long time. Little impish Winnie, the youngest and possibly the brightest in the Village, hurts Death’s pride by teasing, taunting, and escaping him. Lord Bullman, full of wealth and pride, is suspicious of him. Farmer Mere tries to swindle him. Mr. Death outwits (almost) every one of them. Death uses his time in Dodder to his advantage and has a few dalliances with the local women, to his and their benefit. Not only is the grim reaper pretty clever, apparently he is quite the ladies’ man. Mr. John Death really has only one local girl in mind, however: Susie Dawes. For the first time in his long career serving his Master, Death is confronted with these strange mortal feelings of Love and Jealousy for more than one mere mortal man in the Village wants Susie for his own. Death has competition and maybe the game’s not quite fair. Somewhere near the beginning of the story Joseph Bridle, the one man in Dodder who truly loves Susie, finds and silently keeps the lost Treasure, the written orders signed by his Master that Death has lost. The two names on the list are Joseph Bridle and Susie Dawes. Will Death ever recover his lost Treasure? What is going to happen to Susie and Joseph? What about Susie’s others “suitors”? Indeed, what’s going to happen to all the other residents of Dodder when Death himself, scythe and all, is living in their midst?

On the surface, Unclay reads like a romantic gothic horror story complete with the sun hiding behind clouds and little mice scampering back into their holes when Mr. Death appears. Make no mistake about it, though, Unclay is an allegory. Like any good allegory, the somewhat stereotypical characters represent a certain human characteristic. How does Pride deal with Death? How does an innocent heart perceive Death?

For all its deep philosophical thought, Unclay is an incredibly entertaining novel. The story is hard to predict and there is more than one storyline to follow. Some of Powys' observations of us silly mortals are subtle and profound; some are more snarky and funny. Regardless of Death being somewhat of a ladies’ man, Unclay is in no way sexually explicit although it certainly is sexually implicit. (I have to admit to laughing out loud and probably blushing a little to the glaringly obvious sexual innuendo found at one certain point in the story.) There are no dull moments here in Death’s adopted village of Dodder! Reading this book felt like a fun romp through the English countryside where I was introduced to a whole bunch of interesting characters and some new ideas.

Throughout this incredibly strange and entertaining story, Powys challenges our attitudes toward God, religion, Life, Death, Love and Sex. Here's the big question: Is Death our Enemy or our Friend? Do we really want to live forever or would we rather, like young Winnie, have a few sweets here and now?

‘ “They two won’t be missed,” I told ‘e, and throwing a kiss to Gabriel with me fingers, I ran off. --- Will you take a sweet?’
Death took three.
( )
8 vote avidmom | Oct 6, 2013 |
Dear, beauteous death! The jewel of the just,
Shining nowhere but in the dark.
- Henry Vaughan

What a strange, unsettling, wonderful little book! Usually, when one looks forward to a book after hearing good things about it, one is somewhat disappointed by the eventual reading. One rarely finds a book that lives up to one’s expectations, as they tend to be unrealistic or misdirected. But sometimes a book comes along that confounds one’s expectations. Unclay was such a book. It is not a perfect book, and I will get to why not later, but it has a magic all of its own. A moral fable with a surprising twist mixed in with a ‘regional novel’ not about a specific region, Unclay kept surprising me with the way it flouted convention. One might think of T.F. Powys as a religious writer, but his views are anything but orthodox, and his depiction of village life is far from a rural idyll.

‘John Death’ (that is, the Grim Reaper) comes to the small village of Dodder to ‘unclay’ or ‘scythe’ two of its inhabitants. Unfortunately (for him, at least) he loses the parchment containing their names, and, after searching for it in vain, Death decides to take a holiday in Dodder. Strange events ensue. Death uses his supernatural powers to influence events, but the people of the village are so caught up in their own machinations that they hardly realise that something weird is going on. The main plot is concerned with Joseph Bridle, a poor young farmer who is in love with Susie Dawe, a young woman in the village. Joseph finds Death’s parchment, discovers his name and Susie’s on it, and decides to ‘cheat Death’ by hiding the parchment. Meanwhile, Death discovers the pleasures of the flesh, and has amorous adventures with several women in the village. When he turns his attention to Susie, he and Joseph enter into a battle of wills for her.

This exposition of the plot hardly does the book justice, however. Powys writes in a beautifully poetic style, with many aphoristic comments that rarely feel out of place. Some of my favourites:

The last supper upon the earth is always a sad meal; the first breakfast in Heaven will be happier.

Life and Death do not quarrel in the fields. They are always changing places in the slow dance. Alive here and dead there. So the evening is devoured by the night, and the dawn by the day.

One would think almost that at the bottom of the well of being one may discover, instead of a mighty God, only the cap and bells of a mad fool.

I indicated that this is in many ways a moral fable. The main contention in the novel/fable is between Death and Love, though this does not play out as I, for one, expected. The metaphors of Death and Love intermingle throughout the book, as the idea of Death ‘ravishing’ his ‘victims’ comes to play. But Death is both terrifying and uncommonly kind. At one time, he threatens to ‘unclay’ a young girl, and this has some uncomfortably paedophilic connotations. But, as Death explains to the girl:

’But many children,’ answered Death, ‘even younger than you, Winnie – both boys and girls – have come here with me, and I have used them as my custom is.’

An uncomfortable subject, to be sure. But I assume that that is Powys’ point. Death and sex and love are uncomfortable subjects (they were even more so in the 1920’s, when the book was published) but they are also important subjects, perhaps the most important that can be explored in literature. Their conflation may lead to disquiet, but it is a disquiet caused by misplaced fear and repression, rather than an actual need for horror. Powys also represents some reprehensible humans in the book, with the implication that it is not death or sex or love that we need fear, but rather the perversions that humans can make of these natural aspects of existence.

The book may be a fable, but it also has the qualities of an excellent novel. Besides the anthropomorphic characters, the human cast is well-delineated, from the Jane Austen-reading Reverend Hayhoe, to Joseph’s niece, Sarah, who believes she is a camel. All of them are not so whimsical, but they are all interesting, if not necessarily equally rounded. The narrative moves along at its own leisurely pace, with Powys providing many interesting insights into village life, and life (and death) in general. A slight criticism may be that these asides initially seem somewhat unnecessary, but, as the book continues, one becomes used to Powys’ method and you accept his meditative prose style.

I know that many people dislike ‘religious’ books. This, however, is not a typically religious book, nor is it particularly polemical in its approach. Powys sets out his stall, but does not expect one to cleave to any particular ideology. Because his believes tend towards to heterodox, some readers who are more orthodox in their beliefs might be offended by the book. The abovementioned allusions to sex, rape, and paedophilia may also stick in some readers’ craw. I, however, loved the mellifluous prose and thought-provoking story, and will be on the look-out for more of T.F. Powys’ work. ( )
9 vote dmsteyn | Feb 10, 2012 |
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